Discussion Forum: Do You Use Church Management Software?

by Dave Miller on January 19, 2013 · 18 comments

My church is working to upgrade our technological and organizational structure. One of the things we are considering is purchasing and subscribing to a “Church Management System” software package.

Do any of your churches use such a software? Are you impressed? Upset?

Tell me what you know about Church Management software.

1 Doug Hibbard January 19, 2013 at 1:34 pm

No, but I have in the past and it’s great.

If you have someone who keeps it up-to-date and knows how to use.

So, Pastor Dinosaur, you’re going to need some help.

2 John Fariss January 19, 2013 at 1:48 pm

We use ACS and are generally dissatisfied with it. While it is a powerful system, it is anything but user-friendly, and requires yearly training (at $$$) to have much chance of manipulating it to its potential. Of course, if the people using it are already computer geeks, it is probably easier, but this is the second church I have been at that used it, and the 4th (I think) church secretary, and they all have had the same complaint.


3 Dean January 19, 2013 at 2:36 pm

Dave, I have used ACS and have been completely satisfied. If your office help is stable and does not turn over much they can master it and it has all bells and whistles, financial, church attends, you can customize reports tracking membership service. It’s awesome to have secretary print off all committees and classes that a senior adult has served on through the years to add to a funeral message. My last secretary entered visitors on ACS and used it to print off maps to their addresses for visitation. I find it has good support service as well. Any question can be answered.

4 bobby gilstrap January 19, 2013 at 4:15 pm

We have used ACS for many years and find it to be difficult to use and poorly supported. Our users have been with us 19 & 11 years with an I.T. guy who has been with us 11 years. They all complain of the lack of “user-friendliness” of ACS.

In the last decade, most every time ACS has made an upgrade, it has messed something up on our end, requiring hours of time on line with their support to correct the issues. Sometimes over a period of days.

It is also not compatible with virtually any other applications. For instance, we have moved to digital reporting for our staff through http://www.Certify.com. All reimbursable and expense account information can be reported through our staff’s smart phones or computers. Receipts are reported electronically, etc. ACS cannot handle any of those functions. In ACS, everything reported has to be manually transferred. Saves ministry staff some time, but not our support staff.

We are looking for a good program that will meet our needs and be user friendly. We have considered QuickBooks for non-profits because it is highly compatible with most all applications and it appears to do most everything needed. We are still researching, but it is looking hopeful.

If others have ideas for another good program, we’d love to hear about it.

5 Dave Miller January 19, 2013 at 7:33 pm

Frankly, this is the kind of information I am looking for. If you find it unfriendly, I most certainly will.

6 Jim Shaver January 19, 2013 at 7:23 pm

I’ve been using Church Management Software off and on for the last 20 years. Every church I have pastored has eventually gone to a computer based system.

Currently I am just getting to know and use BVCMS which originated out of Bellevue Baptist in Memphis. It is an open source system and so far has impressed me with its low cost and its power. Let’s face it – if a church the size of Bellevue is happy with it then I’m sure it will do more than what I need to do in my small church.

7 Robert Masters January 19, 2013 at 10:03 pm

Mr Miller,
If I can make one suggestion it would be to use open source or free software whenever possible.
Typically savings are usually around 50 percent for TCO(total cost of owner?ip).

Here is a great list of 100 top choices for cms software

8 Greg Harvey January 19, 2013 at 11:38 pm

This series of articles at the link Robert points to can help you work through some key issues: http://www.communicatejesus.com/series-selecting-a-church-member-database/

One thing to watch out for is trying to wrap your church around the software by coming up with a way to capture everything possible. That both wears you out and becomes a maintenance nightmare. Also realize that your choice includes a certain amount of vendor lock in since there isn’t a universal data format and conversions between different systems either may not exist or might have a cost component. A key question to answer is whether there is a data exchange format that includes a clear API or data definition. Or if the data can be accessed via simple SQL queries and has a published and updated schema.

That list of 100+ is pretty daunting to work through though it’s a great resource. The advice to use open source is sound, though you could end up with a dead-end solution if you make extensive changes and free open source software is only “free” in the sense of having the liberty to use it. Using it still imposes costs.

Similarly, trying to avoid all costs likely will leave you with a solution that either is poorly supported or fails to scale.

If I were to choose what to focus on first, I’d try to get accounting and stewardship solved first. You’ll probably need to start by making a list of reports and determine whether you need a CPA/accountant to either ride herd or at least audit and get those professionals involved in reviewing your down selects.

One of the KEY reports is per-member/household contributions and consider the privacy expectations for that data. You need a system that provides security controls and security audits should be part of your personnel turnover both of professional staff (and support personnel) and lay access. It’s critically important you pay attention to this because it’s a source of unlimited embarrassment–not to mention legal liability–if mishandled.

The contributions record is a major timesaver if automated, but you usually end up having to solve for quite a few “moving parts” questions to systematize it and make it productive. It’s probably worth asking if you have or want to establish an online contribution method including automated, recurring contributions while you’re at it since you want that kind of data to feed into your stewardship/accounting “automagically”.

You definitely need to develop a reasoned decision process and not just let a couple of members make the decision or donate old computers to solve the “problem”.

9 David Tuten January 19, 2013 at 11:51 pm

In the realm of open-source, Bellevue Baptist Church has a program they have developed and make available. I have not used it, but blogger Tony Morgan recommends it.

10 Dave Miller January 20, 2013 at 12:38 pm

Thank you.

11 Bart Barber January 20, 2013 at 12:18 pm

This is a true story about ACS. This happened two weeks ago.

We printed all of our W-2s. They were fine. Two of our staff members withhold additional funds from their paychecks to make extra contributions into their Guidestone 403(b) retirement accounts. This requires a modification to their W-2s. We followed the ACS procedure. It worked fine.

Then we went to print our W-3. The modifications to the W-2s were not reflected in the totals on the W-3. We tried several things to fix it. Nothing worked.

We called ACS. They said, “You’re not on our most recent version. You need to upgrade to the latest version of the software.” We were running the version from earlier in 2012, so we weren’t very far off, but nevertheless, I ran the upgrade over the weekend.

The W-3 still didn’t print correctly.

I called ACS on Monday and spent quite some time on the phone with them. My problem wound up being escalated to a supervisor, I think (the man on the phone said that he was consulting a supervisor…I never spoke with anyone but him). Finally, after trying several ways to change the W-3 and being completely unable to do so, he vanished from the line for several minutes, then came back on and said, “The supervisor says that code ‘E’ deductions on the W-2s aren’t supposed to show up on the W-3. The W-3 is correct. Nothing to worry about.”

I said, “Are you absolutely sure? Because this is an IRS document we’re filing here. This has to be correct.”

“Yes,” he replied, “Those figures aren’t supposed to show up on the W-3. You can print it and file it as-is.”

Well, we hung up, and then I immediately went to the Internet to try to verify what he was telling me. It took me about 3 minutes to find the IRS instructions for form W-3 and see that he had no idea what he was talking about. ACS told our church to file a wrong W-3 and assured us that they knew what they were talking about.

I called ACS back, and this time I got a woman who had semi-retired after working for ACS for many years. She works part-time now fielding tech-support calls from her home. She was appalled at the advice that I had received. She immediately recalled a previous call she had taken in which they had discovered this problem years ago. If, while entering the totals for those W-2 adjustments, you include a comma in the numbers (and my financial secretary had done so), then the total appears correctly on the W-2 but not on the W-3.

Thoughts about this:

1. Now, I can see how the software might not be able to parse numbers with embedded commas…but if so, the amount shouldn’t show up on the W-2 either. Input should be validated at the time of input. That’s a basic programming principle.

2. If they discovered this problem years ago, why haven’t they fixed it in any of their updates? Why isn’t it in their KnowledgeBase? Why didn’t the tech I spoke with find this?

3. I need a software provider who, when they don’t know the answer, will say, “I don’t know the answer.” ABOVE ALL ELSE, I don’t need a software provider to just MAKE STUFF UP when it comes to tax forms we’re filing with the federal government.

12 Dave Miller January 20, 2013 at 12:38 pm

That’s kinda scary.

13 William Thornton January 20, 2013 at 6:15 pm

Experience of an average sized SBC church (75-150 in attendance) and a hacking and plodding pastor:

1. We had a top notch part time secretary who kept it all on paper. No problems. A volunteer kepts contributions on paper.

2. A brilliant new pastor initiated a move to computerize the financial records and took the advice of a businessman in church to buy sophisticated financial software. We struggled with that for a few years. It was way beyond our needs and the upgrades and tech support expensive and time consuming, respectively.

3. We went to PowerChurch Plus. The new part time sec. couldn’t manage that. It was funky and quirky. The brilliant pastor, now downgraded to technology-tarnished status, hated it.

4. We went to Membership Plus, which markets itself as small church software. Three part time office workers and one assistant pastor have managed to handle it nicely, without undue difficulty. The membership database, prospect database, and financial stuff work fine.

Fact is, an average sized SBC church is likely to have part time office help and often not with a high level of computer or accounting skills. A simple program is fine. Do I really need to know all the committees a member has been on in the last decade? Shouldn’t I already be close enough in touch to have a feel for that without a printout?

Until we got a younger guy who was tech savvy as music minister, I ended up having to solve the routine software problems. Bart Barber’s story brings back memories of many lost hours and frustrating telephone conversations.

Good luck.

14 Jerry Watts January 21, 2013 at 10:39 am

I bought my first church management program back in 1989 – It was ACS…through the years I have used ACS…Probably because my service has been in Small-to-medium size churches, we have never experienced those issues like described by others. Yes, there have been some issues, but generally, they were easy fixes. Support was suspect during the late 90′s because the company had grown so quickly they could not keep up. Today, we are well pleased.
The only time I didn’t use ACS was from 2002-2006 when I was at a very small church (who couldn’t afford the purchase)…We started with an Open-Source program (not being vague – just can’t remember which one – I’ve slept since then – GRIN) and it didn’t work out…At that point Logos church management software’s salesman made a visit to the office and gave us an incredible deal on their church software (small-church version)…and we found it NON-USER friendly.
For my two-cents worth, ACS is user friendly – and has stood the test of time for me….NO, we have never used it to its FULL-POTENTIAL…but that keeps us finding new ways for it to serve us.
ALL THAT SAID – I want to look into the Belleview System – sounds intriguing!!…AND I am all about saving the Lord’s money…the only negative for me with ACS is the $$$$$ – it is indeed the Lexus….and you pay for it…Even with all the positives – were I in a church just getting started on a Church Management system, I HONESTLY, don’t know whether I would make that kind of capital outlay today. Hope this helps.

15 Robert I Masters January 21, 2013 at 6:02 pm

Just a reminder to everyone that if you use a the Windows based system and want the latest version; the price for upgrade is increasing from 40 dollars to 199 dollars on Jan 31.
Dave I think Leo Endel is fairly knowledgeable on all the CMS stuff too. I suspect you have already talked to him!

Here is a good side by side comparison of the most popular linux distro and Windows latest version.

16 Rick Patrick January 21, 2013 at 7:08 pm

We use http://www.shelbysystems.com/ and are very satisfied with it.

Our ministry assistants describe it as “requiring a lot of steps” but built into this system are checks and balances on data entry and financial records which greatly improve accuracy and provide safeguards.

17 Tim Rogers January 21, 2013 at 10:36 pm

We use PowerChurch Plus. It is quite user friendly for our part time Financial Secretary. We also purchase the support system from them also. The secretary calls and may stay on the phone one hour at the most and she can find a fix. My Financial Secretary is not that computer savvy but she is very efficient. We have been very satisfied with the software performance.

18 Stuart January 22, 2013 at 11:06 pm

Have served in churches that use Shelby. Have served in churches that use ACS. Prefer Shelby by about a bazillion to one over ACS.

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